“I feed you / with a store of love // I’ve gathered like a taproot /
since my birth.”
- "Week Twelve: Taproot"
As the Bradford pear tree outside my window began bursting into flower
in the newfound spring sunlight, I had the unmatched pleasure of
speaking with Leah Naomi Green—teacher, homesteader, and poet
extraordinaire. Her first full-length collection of poetry, The More
Extravagant Feast (Graywolf Press 2020), was the 2019 winner of the
Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. Written with an
attentive and loving eye, The More Extravagant Feast explores themes
of pregnancy, motherhood, and interconnection. It is a triumph of a book
which fosters a necessary awareness of our dependency on ecological
systems and on others.
In this interview, Leah and I discuss The More Extravagant Feast, the
exchanges of the human body, and what it means to have a reciprocal
relationship with our planet and those who occupy it beside us.
The More Extravagant Feast is very much a book of the seeds of
things, the beginnings. Therefore, it feels fitting to ask: where did
this book begin for you?
There aren’t really any beginnings—not discrete ones anyway, and the
same of course is true with endings.
That is the fascination at the center of this book: I don’t know when
my daughters “began” any more than I know when I began, or my parents,
or when the seed in my garden “begins” to be the fruit, or when that
fruit “begins” to be the seed.
It’s all always already there, and conditions transform seeds one way
or another (into fruit we could say or, perhaps, into compost for some
other life—all eventually into compost for some other life).
I can tell you that pregnancy was a necessary condition for this book
to be what it currently is. A lot of ideas, which had been abstract to
me for a long time—important to me but abstract—became
unavoidably real in pregnancy. Thich Nhat Hanh’s idea of “interbeing”
for instance (the idea that without a you there is no me, and vice
versa) or the belief that humans are animals and not divided from the
world by some concept of “nature”—those had long been important
ideas to me. But when I was pregnant, they were simply physical
realities; the reality, for instance, that, while pregnant, I could
not discern my child’s body from my body and could not discern my body
from the food that my partner and I grow and eat. Likewise, when I was
nursing, there was no doubt that I was a mammal; it was very clear.
So although the seeds weren’t the beginning for me, pregnancy was the
condition those seeds needed to become fruit.
I want to follow this thread of interbeing, nourishment, and the
unending cycle of things becoming other things. In the poem “Narration,
Transubstantiation,” you write: “When we eat, / what we eat is the body
// of the world.” Can you talk about these recurring themes and how they
relate to one another in your poetry and in your life?
One of the central realizations of my poems (and yes, my life) is that
ecology and economy are not separable. There is no “nature” we can
“protect” that is separate from “resources” we “use”, there is only
reciprocal exchange, and this exchange can be one of deep
response-ability and gratitude. I have learned a lot from Wendell
Berry, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Thich Nhat Hanh, and have learned a lot
from the garden and woods themselves. A word like “nature” enables a
me to put distance between myself and my actions (e.g. the effects
I necessarily have on the world by eating and breathing), as well as
to put distance between myself and the gifts and I constantly receive
(in order to eat and breath, stay warm, type on a computer, ride in a
car, etc.). When I get break down the divide that the construction of
“nature” would assert between myself and the world, I find that I am
“eating” all the time, and that what I eat “is the body of the
And so, yes, the “when we eat” line is to say: we are always eating,
and eating is not an act of shame, and eating doesn’t have to be a
participation in violence (as it very often becomes through invisible
systems such as industrial agriculture). In participating with
gratitude in exchanges of life (the deer’s body becoming my body, for
instance in the poems “Venison” or “The More Extravagant Feast”)
eating is a sacred and endless continuation of life.
The More Extravagant Feast attempts to place my own pregnant and
nursing body within this trophic exchange, as both eater and as food
for my children, and eventually for the rest of “the body of the
I believe that the creation of poetry, or of art in general, finds
itself in similarly interconnected webs. As poets, we are influenced by
other poets that we admire, and, in turn, poets look toward us for
inspiration. In the same vein, not only does each poem feed off of our
experiences, but we also learn from each poem we write. You mention that
you have learned a lot from Wendell Berry, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and
Thich Nhat Hanh, for instance. What have you learned from the
development of your own poems, your collection? What do you hope other
poets take away from your work?
I think one of the best things a poem can do for a reader is say “I
see you”. In many ways this is what the poem says to me as I write
it, and it seems that the more genuinely I allow myself to be seen by
the poem as I write it, the more genuine the seeing in that poem
I don’t hope for any specific takeaways from my work, but I do want
to build a hallway for the reader, solidly structured I hope, but with
enough space that the reader might walk into it, and perhaps even
encounter themselves there.
On the topic of building a structure for readers to move
through—structure being a topic which I am ever-obsessed with—The
More Extravagant Feast is comprised of four roughly equal sections:
“Seed and Fugue,” “River and Fugue,” “And I You,” and “The More
Extravagant Feast.” When did this structure come along in the process of
making this collection a reality? Did the flow of the book ever look
I find great pleasure in the relational life that words have on the
page. We all witness this in writing: we put the word “sister” into
a poem, for instance, or “God”, all the other words in the poem
become new versions of themselves. Humans are the same way of course,
and every living thing.
There was a lot of pleasure and insight for me as this relational life
transitioned from the scale of words within each poem to the scale of
poems within the book. It taught me a lot about the poems themselves
to experience the different possible relationships that they could
have with one another depending on sequence, sections, etc. It was
lovely to watch the poems step into (and develop) new aspects of
themselves within the “shared space” of the book. The four sections
were an outgrowth of that process.
The book’s structure really came together for me when I decided to
use the pregnancy and nursing poems (many of which are named for weeks
of pregnancy) as scaffolding for a narrative arc. Or perhaps as
stepping-stones within the deeper work of the book. My hope is that
they created enough stability for the reader to move through time
(stone to stone) but also allowed for some molten, non-narrative
material to flow between stones—that non-narrative material doing, I
hope, the work to process gestation more deeply.
Yes, I can’t commend you enough on the relationships and tensions that
you established in the sequence of these poems. The sequence that
affected me the most was your placement of “C-Section” following
“Venison.” The image of a butchered deer directly preceding a c-section
is jarring, but the pairing of the two also hearkens back to that
pervasive theme of interbeing: the body of the deer becomes the body of
the mother becomes the body of the child.
The way you described the interplay between narrative and
non-narrative poems in the book was gorgeous. The poems that find
themselves outside of the larger gestation narrative—poems like “Seed
and Fugue” and “Carrot” and even “The More Extravagant Feast”—really
add texture to and even, at times, personify the bountiful natural world
that your speaker is situated within. In other words, these poems allow
space for readers to stop and take a look around.
This personification of the natural world is particularly present in
poems which center one of two things: the garden and the hunt. You
mentioned before that you and your partner grow your own food, and, in
an excellent interview with Tyler Truman Julian for Puerto del Sol,
you said that the two of you hunt and raise chickens, as well. How long
have you been providing the majority of your own food? How has this
responsibility affected your relationship with the world around you?
Have any challenges arisen as a result of changing weather patterns or
Thank you for your insight and your kindness! I am so glad to hear
that you felt “space to stop and take a look around” in this book. I
do think that one of the best things that art can offer is the chance
to step into someone else’s mind and then return, with some
spaciousness, to our own.
As for “personification” of the world … I suppose I am okay with
it, as long as human “people” are also thoroughly “worldified”
(which is to say, if this is not a unilateral or colonialist
projection of human values). And here again is my interest in
dissolving the line humans have drawn around “Nature” to
“preserve” it from humans and the line we’ve drawn around human and
life and human bodies in order to believe that we are not animals or
have no effect on nature in our daily lives.
Humans are what Graham Swift calls “the story-telling animal.” I am
so in love with human stories and with the meanings we make, and make,
and make. But it is important to me to be clear that the meanings I
make in the world are not somehow “Nature’s” meanings. It
is my mind I see when I look through my eyes at the garden,
and my stories I hear in the woods, though I hope always to do more
listening than telling, and I thrill at the moments when I can move
beyond narrative. At the same time though, I know there is no “me”
that is not made from the garden and woods (and the infinite other
“food” I consume in my actions and relationships).
And yes: food. I live in an ecological community in Southwest
Virginia. I have been here participating in the garden and woods since 2008. My partner joined me in 2009. Because he and I met at a Buddhist
monastery, it was quite a process for us to decide on hunting,
fishing, and eggs as our major sources of protein, but it was a
decision which we were ultimately clear on for ecological reasons. The
hunting of a deer, especially in Virginia where deer are
“overpopulated” due to human habitat fragmentation, seemed an
ultimately kinder “environmental” act than buying tofu or beans
shipped to us via fossil fuel. Those relationships to deer and fish
and eggs have been some of the most sacred relationships of my life.
There is no hiding in those relationships from the fact that my
body’s energy comes always from other, very real bodies and will go
always into other bodies. This is to say, there is no pretending I’m
I think you are right to use the word responsibility for this, but
it is simultaneously gift, and I’m just so grateful that, living
where I live, I get to see the exchanges which enable my life—and
all life—and which take place everywhere. The human animal, it turns
out, is also a very sight-dependent one, and being able to see the
exchanges… well, it matters a lot to me. It helps me. I realized
just the other day that feeling this responsibility/gift
reciprocity—the reciprocity of eating, breathing, heating with wood,
caring for family and friends, and being cared for by them—is the
greatest source of joy and gratitude in my life.
As for climate issues, I don’t think it’s me or my family we need to
worry about—at least not yet. We certainly see the differences
already in our fields and woods (maple sugaring happens earlier every
year for instance, frosting is harder to predict), but it is the
farmers on the margins around the world (those who do not also have
other jobs) that we need to be supporting now.
“My husband carries a stone / in his pocket. // Each week he finds a
bigger one. / I carry a child.” So begins “Week Five: Measure.” In “Week
Ten: Plum,” the child that the speaker carries is likened to a plum that
“must grow, // planted as it is in the dew.”
The reciprocity, and the deep sense of humans as part of nature no
matter how removed many of us may feel from it, is the beating heart of
this collection. The “worldification” you apply to the humans in these
poems is deft and tender, and very significant. It would be a mistake to
read this collection as anything but an ode to interconnectedness.
What is a piece of advice you would give to someone looking to have a
more reciprocal relationship with nature rather than a careful,
distanced one? And in what ways can we, as individuals, do our part to
support those fellow human beings most affected by climate change?
Translation from one life to another is always—well—translation.
Lives can be so different. But an outgrowth of my life here, which my
students have sometimes found useful in their lives, is to ask of
things: where does this come from? And where will this go?
Approaching the things in one’s life as though they have histories
(because of course they do) and as though they have futures (because
of course they do) can be a really helpful practice both of
decentering oneself as “consumer,” and of revealing the living
(though not always thriving) networks involved in powering say, an
elevator or a meal. Even when I can’t answer those questions, just
remembering that everything and everyone has their own life and
history, and that those lives will continue in some form beyond my
sight—it can be a practical way of remembering that there’s no
“nature” out there separate from daily lives and actions—there is
only the world, and we live in it—and there are no people out there
separate from that world.
This loving sense of awareness which you carry through your life and
which you share with others is inspiring and so sorely needed,
especially as the divisions between us all only seem to grow. In your
collection, you provide a necessary space for readers to ask these
questions—of histories and futures that are not their own—and to
The More Extravagant Feast is your first full-length poetry
collection—can we expect more from you in the near future?
I have been writing a lot since The More Extravagant Feast came out.
Writing is such a gift—the act of writing I mean. And now that my
three-year-old sleeps, I can have a few hours to just write before the
birds and the house wake.
I read a lot of Lucille Clifton over the winter, and she reminded me
how to just say a thing: how to let a thing that needs
saying be complex without complicating it. That has been good for my
writing, some of which is on its way out now, most of which is here
until it’s ready. Yes, there is still much more.
Leah Naomi Green’s first full-length poetry collection, The More Extravagant Feast (Graywolf Press, 2020), was selected by Li-Young Lee as the winner of the 2019 Walt Whitman Award, given by the Academy of American Poets.